Editor’s Choice Award April 2020, Horror

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

That Look In Her Eyes by Jim Racanelli

I start reading with mild interest.  Most of us have probably read stories or seen movies in which the spirit of someone who has died calls a living loved one on the phone.  So when James receives a call from his dead father, I’m thinking it’s somewhat familiar territory, though handled nicely.  I grow more interested when James calls his sister but instead reaches his brother-in-law, Bobby, who seems to expect the call.  I fall in love with this story at the line, “You were driving home last March,” when I realize James, too, is a spirit calling a loved one.  The plot twist is delightful.  I feel excited anticipation about what is to come (hoping for yet another plot twist–could Bobby also be a ghost?) and really enjoy the absurdity when James tries to prove he can’t be a ghost by arguing, “a ghost can’t pick up the phone and call another ghost.  That doesn’t even make sense.”

The story also does a nice job of using text from the first part of the story to create subtext later in the story.  After James talks to his dead father, he worries about the possibility that his father might show up at the house.  Later, when James talks to Bobby, and James decides he should go over to Bobby’s house, Bobby does everything he can to deter James from going over.  We recognize the parallels to the first situation and are able to deduce what is in Bobby’s mind.  That works very nicely.

While I really enjoy all that, some areas of the story don’t work as well as they might.

The story doesn’t seem unified.  For me, the first part of the story, in which James talks to his dead father, shows us that the father is a relentless complainer and is still stuck in that behavior after death.  We also see that James is relentless–relentlessly angry, I think, though that could be shown more clearly–and has trouble taking responsibility and apologizing.  The theme seems to be that people are stuck with their personalities and behaviors and have a hard time escaping those.  This doesn’t quite seem to fit with James, who had such a heated argument with his father that his father had a heart attack and died.  Yet the James we see in the story seems able to stay fairly calm when on the phone with his father now.  James does not seem stuck in his behaviors.  When talking to Bobby, he doesn’t seem angry.  So I don’t get a consistent sense of his personality; another way of saying it is that he seems to have changed since his father was alive.

The climax centers around the placing of blame, as James remembers being in the car accident with his wife, Jo, and Jo giving him an accusatory look as she dies.  James doesn’t actually seem to be to blame.  A drunk driver T-boned their car.  Jo seems trapped in blaming James, unable to get past that moment and rescind the blame.  This is very believable territory for me.  Years ago, my husband made me aware that I tended to blame him for everything, and once I realized that I did, indeed, do that, I was horrified and I stopped.  Spouses and family members can definitely fall into the blame game, and that game can last a lifetime–or perhaps, even longer.  So that section rings very true to me, yet it doesn’t seem to strongly connect to the rest of the story.

Let’s look at some other parts of the story in which the issue of the placement of blame arises.  James knows he’s at least partially responsible for his father’s death, though this doesn’t seem to weigh on him and he never apologizes.  Since the father doesn’t know he’s dead, he doesn’t blame James.  So the issue is touched on but not really explored.

One more situation involving transgression and blame involves Fran, James’s sister, who blames herself for the deaths of James and Jo, and Bobby, who believes he is actually the one to blame for their deaths.  Since Fran and Bobby aren’t central to the story, these aren’t adding much.  And blaming oneself is different from blaming someone else.

I think you could adjust these elements of transgression and blame to focus them around a single theme and unify the story.  If Jo blames James, perhaps James blames his father.  In the story, James implies the father is to blame for the breakup of their family, though it doesn’t seem to bother him.  Maybe it does bother him.  Maybe his mother is unhappy and alone, or died unhappy and alone.  Or maybe James blames his father for making James into a stubborn, relentless person.  In this sort of situation, perhaps the person who is being blamed can’t find rest after death, knowing someone is condemning him, and the person placing the blame also can’t find rest, feeling unsatisfied.  The person feeling blamed makes the phone call, searching for forgiveness, though he may not realize it.  In that case, maybe Fran blames James, so James keeps trying to call Fran but gets Bobby instead.  And when James goes upstairs to wake Jo, perhaps he finds Jo calling the wife of the drunk driver, who blames Jo for her husband’s death.  Or perhaps Jo is calling James’s father, who blames her for stopping James from becoming a lawyer.

I think with some changes like this, the story’s exploration of the horrific web of blame that can swallow up a family can be more focused and unified, and can carry more emotion and power.

Another area I’d like to discuss is James’s reaction when Bobby tells him that he died in a car accident.  For me, James’s reaction rings false.  He doesn’t seem to react to many things Bobby says; the first-person perspective fades away from the story, leaving us primarily with dialogue.  When Bobby tells James that James was in an accident, James seems to ignore that information.  If he was tuning Bobby out, I might understand that, but later he reacts to what Bobby says, replying, “Sounds like it should have been in my eulogy.”  Why would James say this when he thinks he’s alive?  He certainly wouldn’t use that tense.  He might say, “Sounds like it should be in my eulogy,” though even that response wouldn’t make sense to me.  A page later, James suggests that Bobby was having a bad dream when he called.  That reaction comes far too late, if that’s how James is explaining this to himself.  Later still, James has a deep insight into Bobby’s feelings, thinking “it’s like he’s at the bottom of a deep pit,” etc.  James has seemed oblivious to much of what Bobby has said, and now he seems deeply involved in the conversation.  It feels like James’s reactions are being controlled by the author, not that this is how James would really react.  That section undermined the character for me.

Finally, the opening section, up until James calls Bobby, seems a bit talky, which is a common problem with first person.  I think you could cut that down about 10% and tighten the story.

I hope these comments are helpful.  I enjoy the story and the themes you explore.

Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust

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